Mens Rea Reform and its Discontents

Levin, Benjamin | January 1, 2019

This Article examines the contentious debates over recent proposals for “mens rea reform.” The substantive criminal law has expanded dramatically, and legislators have criminalized a great deal of conduct that is quite common. Often, new criminal laws do not require that defendants know they are acting unlawfully. Mens rea reform proposals seek to address the problems of overcriminalization and unintentional offending by increasing the burden on prosecutors to prove a defendant’s culpable mental state. These proposals have been a staple of conservative-backed bills on criminal justice reform. Many on the left remain skeptical of mens rea reform and view it as a deregulatory vehicle purely designed to protect defendants accused of financial or environmental crimes. Rather than advocating for or against such proposals, this Article argues that opposition to mens rea reform should trouble scholars and activists who are broadly committed to criminal justice reform. Specifically, I argue that the opposition demonstrates three particular pathologies of the U.S. criminal system and U.S. criminal justice reform: (1) an overreliance on criminal law as a vehicle for addressing social problems; (2) the instinct to equalize or level up—when faced with inequality, many commentators frequently argue that the privileged defendant should be treated as poorly as the disadvantaged defendant, rather than using the privileged defendant’s treatment as a model; and (3) the temptation for mass incarceration critics to make exceptions and support harsh treatment for particularly unsympathetic defendants. Ultimately, this Article argues that achieving sweeping and transformative criminal justice reform will require overcoming the three pathologies.